Bears Offseason Outlook: Inside Linebacker

Editor's note: This is the eighth in a series of positional breakdowns as the Bears enter the offseason. Click here for all of them as we move along.
(670 The Score) The Bears selected inside linebacker Roquan Smith with the eighth overall pick last April in large part because they were enamored with his sideline-to-sideline ability and potential. In his rookie season, Smith delivered on those hopes.

He helped the Bears establish a dynamic inside linebacking tandem alongside veteran Danny Trevathan. What's to come at this position?

Who's back: Danny Trevathan, 28; Roquan Smith, 21; Nick Kwiatkoski, 25; Joel Iyiegbuniwe, 23; Josh Woods, 22; Jameer Thurman, 24

The Bears have their entire inside linebacker group under contract for the 2019 season, with Trevathan and Smith set for their second season playing together. Kwiatkoski was bumped from a starting role by Smith but provided quality depth and a presence on special teams. Iyiegbuniwe also was an important player on special teams.

2018 review

There were several directions the Bears could've gone with No. 8 pick and some greater roster needs to address. But general manager Ryan Pace has preached the belief of taking the "best player available," and that proved to be Smith.

The only complication for Smith during his rookie season came with his contract impasse last summer. The Bears and Smith's party were at odds over contract language but ultimately came to a resolution in mid-August, after the team left Bourbonnais. Smith then experienced hamstring tightness upon returning, which kept him out for the entire preseason.

Smith's talent and instincts were enough to overcome the lack of a preseason. The Bears started Kwiatkoski in their regular-season opener, but Smith entered late in the second quarter and sacked Packers quarterback DeShone Kizer on his first NFL defensive snap. Smith was the starter a week later and the rest of the season, recording 121 tackles, eight tackles for a loss, five sacks and an interception.

"It was huge to watch him just kind of flourish, especially in the late part of the year," Pace said of Smith during the team's season-end press conference.

"You know, you talk to Roquan and you can just feel him just feeling comfortable in the defense. So now he's not thinking as much, he's just playing with his instincts and he's playing fast."

The emergence of Smith came as Trevathan enjoyed his first season in Chicago with full health. Trevathan posted 102 tackles, eight tackles for a loss and two interceptions in 16 games.

Kwiatkoski accepted his reduced role in stride, chipping in with 15 tackles. Drafted in the fourth round last spring, Iyiegbuniwe had nine tackles while primarily working in special teams.

The Bears didn't retain inside linebackers coach Glenn Pires on the staff of new defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. The team hired Mark DeLeone from the Chiefs as its new inside linebackers coach. He previously spent time in Kansas City on staff with Bears coach Matt Nagy.

2019 outlook

The exciting aspect for the Bears in watching Smith is envisioning how he can continue to develop.

For all that Smith showed as a rookie, he also left some more to be desired. The Bears hope to see him improve in coverage. There are also the finer details at the NFL level that can become more natural for him. Still, Nagy and now-former defensive coordinator Vic Fangio both realized as the season went on that the game was slowing down for him.

Continued progress for Smith will enhance what he can bring as a tandem alongside Trevathan. They were comfortable working together, and continued growth would give the Bears more incentive to re-sign Trevathan, who's slated for free agency after the 2019 season. The front office will be assessing how the Smith-Trevathan combination fits beyond 2019. Trevathan turns 30 just after free agency in 2020.

Regardless of that future, the Bears have a star in the making in Smith and depth at that position to continue developing.

Chris Emma covers the Bears, Chicago’s sports scene and more for Follow him on Twitter @CEmma670.​